Irish History and its Relation to Genealogical Research [1] (Version 1.2, 09/2018)

The author of an earlier version of this page wisely noted:  History “affects the records – what was recorded, who recorded it, who was recorded, what survives, and where it can be found.”

When we describe ourselves as being of Irish decent, we often unintentionally gloss over certain aspects of Ireland’s complex history.  Ireland is a nation whose population (DNA) base has changed dramatically over the centuries.  The Irish are descendants of the following major people groups: 

A. The Gaelic Irish, who arrived 500-600 BCE (“Before the Christian or Common Era” - incorporating the “pre-Irish,” of whom little is known, who arrived before that – these original immigrants were religiously “pagans,” then Catholics);

B. The Vikings, a numerically small but very influential group who arrived ca. 800-1000 CE (“Common or Christian Era”) – “pagans,” then Catholics;

C. The “Old English,” including the Normans – Catholic colonists, who arrived ca. 1167-1558;

D. The “New English” (mostly Protestants, colonists who arrived mostly after 1558).[2]

E.  The Ulster Scots (Scots-Irish, mostly Protestants, most arrived after 1606 – there were and are, however, some Catholic Ulster Scots, e.g. branches of the Kennedys, MacDonalds, MacDonnells, Murrays, Napiers, etc.[3] The Ulster Scots consist both of Scottish families who have “always” lived both in Scotland and on the NE Irish coast and more recent colonists.

As genetically-mixed-up Irish-Americans, we’re probably related, in some way, to ALL or most of these people groups.

Britain and Ireland

It is important to emphasize that Britain’s and Ireland’s histories are, and always have been intertwined, for better or worse. 
Britain (or more accurately Norman England, at the outset), first became involved in Irish affairs, in 1167.  Norman involvement Initially was not an “invasion.”  It was related to a typical Irish civil war between petty kings (1156-1166), with various lesser kings supporting several of their number for the usually-vacant office of High King of the entire island.  In the East of Ireland those most actively involved were Dermot MacMurrough of Leinster, supporting Murtough MacLochlainn (a Northern O’Neill, headquartered in NW Ulster) for High King and Tiernan O’Rourke of Breifne (centered in NWC Ireland) – supporting Rory O’Conner of Connacht.  Dermot MacMurrough traveled to England & France and asked the help of King Henry II against O’Rourke and O’Connor in exchange for his pledge of feudal loyalty to Henry.  King Henry “delegated” Dermot’s problem to the Welsh Normans, who, under Richard FitzGilbert, “invaded” Ireland in 1167 on behalf of MacMurrough and MacLochlainn.  Henry II later arrived in Waterford with a significant army, in 1171 (the real “invasion”), bent on conquest.[4] “Everyone” (Eastern Irish, Vikings, “Irish” Normans) soon submitted to him.  Thereafter, for 400 years, the English Normans (later the English) controlled the Pale (Dublin and a few surrounding counties) while other “Hibernicized” Normans and the native Irish controlled the rest of the island.  The Immigrant Norman aristocracy, like the Vikings before them, married into, and eventually became indistinguishable from, the native Irish aristocracy.

Ireland remained largely independent of England until the Reformation era, when King Henry VIII (1491-1547, King of England, 1509-1547) assumed the title of King of Ireland in 1541, with the backing of English and Irish Parliaments (the Irish Parliament consisted mostly of “Old English” aristocrats and really represented only a portion of the island).[5]  Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603, Queen of England, 1558-1603), was the first English monarch to exercise practical sovereignty over Ireland, a process that her successors perfected.  After the Reformation, wars of religion, like the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639-1651) and the War of the Two Kings (fought mostly in Ireland, 1688-1691), eventually left the Catholic majority in Ireland in powerless subjugation, a condition they endured until “Catholic Emancipation” became a reality in the United Kingdom in 1829.

The 19th Century saw political campaigns, based among Irish Catholics and certain “Protestant Patriots,” to achieve: (1) renewed Home Rule for Ireland (the Irish Parliament had been merged with the British Parliament in 1800), and (2) land reform, to secure the status of tenants on their rented lands, or return landlord-owned properties to the Irish peasantry. 

The Home Rule campaign was shepherded by Isaac Butt (1813-1879), Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891), and John Redmond (1856-1918), the three most prominent leaders of the Irish Nationalist (or Parliamentary) Party in the British House of Commons.  When Home Rule within the United Kingdom was not achieved by the Nationalists, the Sinn Fein Revolt (1916-1921) eventually led to Home Rule of a different sort, with separate Parliaments both for the independent Irish Free State (later Republic) and the six predominantly Protestant counties of the Northeast, known thereafter collectively as Northern Ireland, an area which remains a part of the United Kingdom (both of these new political entities were established in 1921).

Land Reform was achieved incrementally through various acts of the British Parliament, 1870-1909, which often resulted from pressure asserted by Irish tenant-farmers through organizations like the Michael Davitt’s Irish National Land League and its successor the Irish National League (together active 1879-1898).  Wyndham’s Land Purchase Act of 1903 was the most wide-ranging of these land laws, which essentially provided funds for government purchase of properties from landlords at suitable prices and provided grants and loans that allowed tenants to purchase these freed-up lands at reasonable rates. 

 Migration from Ireland to America – 17th and 18th Centuries 

It is difficult to estimate how many 17th-century migrants from Britain and Ireland were of Irish descent, although there was a noticeable Irish Catholic minority in the small population (25,000 in 1700) of early colonial Maryland, which initially had been founded as a refuge for British and Irish Catholics.  Probably 90% of the Irish immigrants to American in the 18th century were Protestants, mostly Presbyterians from Ulster, who came because of changing agricultural practices (e.g. deforestation and a declining timber industry, a switch in land use to grazing from farming, a declining need for flax and the eventual collapse of the linen trade, occasional localized potato crop failures, decline in the tenuous practice of “Ulster Custom,” etc.) and rural violence (clashes between Protestant and Catholic tenants and laborers; conflicts with landlords).[6]

Migration from Ireland to America – the 19th Century

Irish immigration to America declined during the period of the American and French Revolutions and the Napoleonic Wars (1775-1815).  This resulted mainly from the difficulty of sea travel during the many wars of the period and the significant participation of Irish males in the British army and navy.

Once peace returned to Europe, Irish immigration to America increased substantially, becoming extremely heavy during the period of the Great Famine, 1845-1852.  Census records show that 262,000 Irish immigrants arrived 1820-1840, 1,695,000 arriving 1841-1860 (the “Famine Decades”), with a total 19th-Century migration (1820-1910) of 4,787,000.  Roughly 477,000 Irish immigrants arrived in the 20th Century (1911-2010).

Select Bibliography on Irish History [7]
  • Akenson, Donald Harman.  Small Differences: Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, 1815-1922.  Demographically, there often were very few differences, outside the small Ascendency class, between Irish Catholics and Protestants in the 19th Century.  Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1991. 
  • Bateman, John.  The Great Landowners of Great Britain and Ireland (London: Harrison and Sons, 1878 – reprinted by Cambridge University Press, 2014 - the edition most recently in print).  Batemen published four editions between 1873 and 1883; the last was the best.  The McKiernan Library at the Celtic Junction Fine Arts Center in St. Paul, houses a copy of the 4th (1883) edition. 

  • Cannadine, David.  The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy.  New York: Doubleday-Anchor, 1990.  Includes an excellent survey of the various land laws that reduced the aristocracy’s influence in Ireland during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. 

  • Doherty, Richard.  The Williamite War in Ireland, 1688-1691.  Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1991. 

  • Dooley, Terence.  The Decline of the Big House in Ireland.  Dublin: Wolfhound Books, 2001.

  • Elliott, Marianne.  When God Took Sides Religion and Identify in Ireland, an Unfinished History. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2009. 
    Falls, Cyril.  Elizabeth’s Irish Wars.  Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1950. 

  • Foster, R. F. Modern Ireland, 1600-1972.  New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

  • Foster, R. F.  Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923.  New York: W. W. Norton, 2013. 

  • Gordon, Michael A.  The Orange Riots: Irish Political Violence in New York City, 1870 and 1871.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993.  Gordon’s book records the sad reality that internecine “religious” violence was easily transferred to the New World from Ireland. 

  • Moody, T. W. and F. X. Martin.  The Course of Irish History.  New York: Roberts Rinehart, 2012.  “Everyone’s” first Irish history book. 

  • O Suilleabhain, Amhlaoibh (Tomas de Bhaldraithe, translator).  The Diary of an Irish Countryman, 1827-1835.  Cork: Mercier Press, 1978).  A non-Ascendency view of Irish life before the Famine.  

  • Tanner, Marcus.  Ireland’s Holy Wars: The Struggle for a Nation’s Soul, 1500-2000.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. 

  • Tocqueville, Alexis de (Emmet Larkin, translator).  Journey in Ireland, July-August, 1835.  Washington: Catholic University Press, 1990.  America’s famous French chronicler reflects on conditions in Ireland during the summer of 1835.   

  • Woodham-Smith, Cecil.  The Great Hunger: The Story of the Famine of the 1840s.  New York: Harper and Row, 1962.  Still the best one-volume consideration of the subject.   

1 This page consists of general background to aid in consultation of the resources outlined in Key Irish Genealogical Sources page (separate tab). Return

2 From the severe on-again off-again Famine of 1845-1852, until the period of rapid decline in religious belief over the past several decades, the Irish population typically has identified as about 77% Catholic and 23% Protestant. Return

3 Since the Reformation, many Irish families have changed religion, sometimes many times. Return

4 The Norman Empire at this time included England, Wales, much of lowland Scotland, and much of Western France.  For several hundred yers hereafter, Irish cities often were bilingual, with in habitants speaking both Norman French and Irish. Return

5 Before 1541, the English King held the title of “Lord of Ireland,” from the Pope, who was persuaded by the Normans, shortly after Henry II’s invasion of Ireland, that while Ireland was potentially a separate, even independent, Kingdom it really was, for the present, a tribal wilderness that needed an outside governor.   The Lordship made Ireland an (in essence) English “protectorate.” Since the Lord of Ireland was also the King of England, he was represented locally by a governor in Dublin, variously known as justiciar, lieutenant, or Lord Deputy, who presided over an Irish Parliament. Return

6 Estimates of 18th-Century Irish immigration vary considerably, from 250,000 to 450,000, with the lower figure more often accepted. Return 

7 This bibliography is a highly idiosyncratic one.  The texts included reflect broad periods or themes in Irish history and should be supplemented by your own reading.  Many of these books regularly go into and out of print. Return